Suggestions for Resolving the Conundrum of Chinese Intelligence Operations in the US: Fragments Developed from a Master’s Precepts

The People’s Republic of China Consulate in San Francisco (above). The Consulate has been a bit troublesome. On occasion, it has been linked to suspected Chinese espionage efforts on the West Coast. However, Chinese intelligence operations in the region, which holds world-leading science and tech firms, have more often been tied to state-owned businesses, private firms, academic institutions, or research institutes than the Consulate. In a January 31, 2021 post, greatcharlie reviewed James Olson’s To Catch a Spy: The Art of Counterintelligence. In Chapter Six, Olson lists 10 “benefits of a counterintelligence operation” and explains how to reap them. In this essay, greatcharlie presents some suggestions on how Olson’s precepts might be applied to help defeat Chinese espionage efforts throughout the US.

In its January 31, 2021 post, greatcharlie reviewed James Olson’s To Catch a Spy: The Art of Counterintelligence (Georgetown University Press, 2019. In Chapter Six “Double-Agent Operations,” Chapter Seven, “Managing Double-Agent Operations,” and Chapter Eight “Counterintelligence Case Studies,” in particular, Olson provides a generous amount of information on how counterintelligence operations have been conducted by US counterintelligence services. Readers are also favored with many of the logical principles that Olson would practice and expound during training during his service in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) counterintelligence. Included among what he presents is a list of benefits US counterintelligence seeks to gain from a double-agent operations: spreading disinformation; determining the other side’s modus operandi; identifying hostile intelligence officers; learning the opposition’s intelligence collection requirements; acquiring positive intelligence; tying up the opposition’s operations; taking the oppositions money; discrediting the opposition; testing other countries; and, pitching the hostile case officer. Many of the tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods of US counterintelligence are laid out. Some portions are couched in anecdotes illustrating practices used in the past. Each to an extent is a display of the imagination and creativity. One discovers how double-agents were dangled to garner interest from adversarial intelligence services, false information spiked with just enough truths, “chicken feed,” was transmitted, and nuanced communications between the double-agent and his handler were managed. In 12 case studies, Olson finally presents a classical series of demonstrations along with lessons learned. He tells it all in an apposite way. Virum mihi, Camena, insece versutum. (Tell me, O Muse,of the skillfully man.)

In fairness, Olson’s work should not be judged in terms of his reaction to the prevailing national security crisis at the time of this writing: Chinese intelligence penetration into the foundations of US power. A criminal strain is observed running through the thinking of the Communist Party of China as it dispatches Chinese foreign intelligence services to steal volumes, tons of information from the most secure locations in the US. Perhaps what the future may hold is made darker by the fact that among its central members, are individuals of immense intellect, making them a far more dangerous threat to US interests. In greatcharlie’s view, there is much that can be extracted from To Catch a Spy that might constructively provide some suggestions on how to address this crisis. With the objective of being transparent, greatcharlie must disclose that on the matter of Chinese espionage in the US it is partisan, giving its complete support to the US, the homeland. That does not imply that a bias colors its discussion. No information is skewed or bent with preconceived ideas. What it does mean is that readers will likely discern facts are interpreted from that perspective.

In Chapter Six of To Catch a Spy, Olson lists the 10 “benefits of a counterintelligence operation” related in particular to double-agent operations and explains, in brief, how to reap them. In this essay, greatcharlie may albeit step out on shaky ground to present some discreet suggestions on how 9 of Olson’s 10 precepts might be applied in efforts to defeat Chinese espionage activities in the US. The suggestions are the result of some creative thinking on what if anything new might be said on the matter. In the essay’s discussion, greatcharlie hopes to avoid any appearance of instructing counterintelligence officers on what to do. Rather, the only desire is to offer all readers its suggestions, leaving it up to those in US counterintelligence to observe, reflect, and act as they may. It would be satisfying enough to know that some of what is presented here might  resonate with a few of them. It is presumed by greatcharlie that Olson’s precepts harmonize to a great degree with those that currently guide US counterintelligence officers in active service and thereby anything resulting from them would not be deemed too fanciful or even recherché. Applying Olson’s precepts to developments on the Chinese intelligence front in greatcharlie’s would have been beyond its scope of its preceding review of To Catch a Spy –although some readers noting the review’s length might sardonically query why there might be any concern over a few thousand words extra. In response to such concerns, greatcharlie has attempted to apply Olson’s teachings to the discussion here without making it an exercise in “large data processing.” It should also be noted that from the corpus of work on Chinese intelligence, a great influence upon greatcharlie are the writings of Peter Mattis. Since leaving the CIA, where he was a highly-regarding analyst on China, Mattis has published a number of superlative essays on Chinese intelligence and counterintelligence. Mattis, along with a former military intelligence officer and diplomat, Matthew Brazil, published Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer (United States Naval Institute Press, 2019), a book which is nothing less than brilliant.

Additionally, upon consideration of what it could offer to support the development of more effective approaches to defeat Chinese human intelligence and electronic intelligence collection activities against the US, greatcharlie bore in mind that it would need to be somewhat Daedalian in its discussion. Therefore, what is offered are fragments of ideas with the aim of leaving a figurative trail of breadcrumbs that  a few officers in the US counterintelligence services might pick up. Hopefully, after testing their virtue, they will find something useful. Given this approach, greatcharlie apologies in advance to other readers who may find the discussion somewhat cryptic or a bit “undercooked” at places. De minimis grandis fit magnus acervus. (From the smallest grains comes a big heap.)

Chinese Foreign Intelligence Versus US Counterintelligence

Resolving the problem of halting the torrent of successful Chinese intelligence operations against targets inside the US has hardly provided mental exaltation for the rank and file in US counterintelligence services operating in the field. US counterintelligence has lived with failure too long. Surely, a great cloud has covered any happiness of their work. The inability to put an appreciable dent in Chinese efforts has likely had some measurable impact on the morale of earnest US counterintelligence officers. Indeed, the abstruse puzzle that Chinese intelligence operations pose has most likely been an anxiety generating challenge that has pressed those given to believe it is their purview to know things others cannot know. At the top, senior executives and managers must account for the failing of their respective US counterintelligence services. Imaginably, they resent the deficiency. Surely, they are feeling terribly unsettled by regular reports of so much being blown, so much intellectual property and classified material being lost. They have certainly had a bellyful of the failure rate against the Chinese intelligence networks. There has been so much scandal–or at least what should be scandal–with US political leaders becoming entangled with Chinese intelligence operatives, from interns, drivers, fundraisers, to “camp followers.” Expectantly, senior executives and managers should be wondering whether the rank and file of US counterintelligence has gone on hiatus. To use contemporary sports vernacular in the US, US counterintelligence services “have not shown up” in the struggle with China. They may also be wondering, given the array of tools and considerable resources available to them, whether the rank and file, led by squad, shop, or unit supervisors and commanders, have told them the whole story. Perhaps harshly, they would question whether the rank and file were organizing valid plans or going off on profitless “school boy larks,” not remotely sufficient to defeat a most cunning opponent. Against the Chinese style intelligence operations, it may very well be the case that the ordinary principles of trade craft and security have gone to the wall. French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is quoted as saying: “You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war.” Directors and commanding officers of US counterintelligence services can only come to the US Congress for hearings on oversight and appropriations seeking sympathy not approval or report any real success.

Perchance little has really been provided in any official assessments of why US counterintelligence efforts have been so unsuccessful. Perhaps senior executives are not asking the right questions or any questions. When one is overmatched, one will usually lose. Some enhanced intelligibility in the discussion of what has been occurring would help to bring at least the US public around to a better understanding of what where things stand and the prospects for success. Without that, policy analysts and other observers are left to presume that the Chinese are that much better. Indeed, as of this writing, the suggestion that has frequently been voiced in certain quarters concerned with the crisis, and has even spilled out into the newsmedia, is that the professional, diligent officers of the US counterintelligence services–and sadly those qualities cannot be ascribed to the entire group–are simply unable to get a handle on the Chinese threat. That suggests there has been a complete eclipse of their faculties. However, that should not be taken as the gospel truth. Surely, the men and women of the US counterintelligence services, correctly focused, will be able to gain and retain the initiative and start pulling apart Chinese intelligence networks. The renowned US industrialist Henry Ford once remarked: “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” The US counterintelligence services maintain their vigil.

Olson’s Precepts from To Catch a Spy

On “Spreading disinformation”

Olson begins his veritable “mini manual” by explaining double-agents can be used to provide the opposition service with false or misleading disinformation, but this a relatively infrequent objective. Deceiving the enemy in this manner requires tremendous planning and subtlety because adversarial foreign intelligence services are not easily deceived. Very often they possess the means to verify the provenance of the double-agent’s reporting. Moreover, if the double-agent reports that some action will take place in the future and it does not, the double-agent’s credibility is seriously undermined. According to Olson the use of disinformation in a double-agent operation would only make sense when the stakes are unusually high or the opposition has limited means of verification.

With reference to “Determining the other side’s modus operandi”

Olson explains that a double-agent is in a perfect position to report back on the opposition’s modus operandi. For any counterintelligence officer responsible for monitoring and thwarting hostile services operations, it is invaluable to know how the service conducts its business. Olson recalls that when he was tasked with developing counterintelligence programs at CIA field stations, the first thing he did was review all of the double-agent operations that any US government agency had run in that location. What he wanted to learn was how the target services operated. Among the questions that he would ask were the following: “Did they meet their agents in safe houses, cafes, parks, vehicles, or some other location? What time of day did they prefer for agent meetings? Were there sections of the city they overused? Did they incorporate initial contact points into their modus operandi, and if so, what kind? What kind of equipment and training did they provide for their agents? Did they use electronic communications of any kind? Where were their dead drops and what did their concealment devices look like? What type of signal device did they prefer?”

Olson remarks that It was especially helpful to have double-agent history in the same city that you are operating, but there was value in reviewing any foibles of double-agent operations run by the target service anywhere. As Olson explains, the case officers of the service have all had the same training and follow the same operational doctrine. They tend to fall into habits and use operational techniques that have worked for them elsewhere. The result can be predictability–a major vulnerability in spying that can and should be exploited by the opposition’s counterintelligence. 

Concerning “Identifying hostile intelligence officers”

Foreign intelligence services take great pains to hide their case officers under a variety of covers according to Olson. They can pose as diplomats, trade officials, journalists, students, businessmen or businesswomen, airline representatives, employees of international organizations, and practically any other profession that gives them an ostensible reason for being in the country. US counterintelligence is tasked with piercing those covers and identifying the spies. One of the best tools available for this task is the double-agent.

In some cases the handling officer is the recruiting officer. If the recruiting officer first met our double-agent dangle when he was providing the dotting and assessing venues in true name, then the double-agent can provide a positive identification from the beginning. As standard practice, however, the case officer will use an alias in meeting with the double-agent. The double-agent can still provide a detailed description of his or her handler and can often make an identification through a photo spread. Also, since counterintelligence service running the double-agent operation knows when and where the case officer will show up, for example to meet to meet the double agent, to service a dead drop, or to mark a signal, it has technical options to assist in identification. The case officer usually comes from a known pool of officials from the local embassy, consulate, the UN, a trade mission, or some other official installation. Olson claims that it never takes long “to make” who the handler is.

Double-agent operations that go on for an extended period, as many of them do, Olson explains that they will lead usually to additional identifications of hostile intelligence personnel. Case officers rotate regularly to other assignments, and their agents doubled or otherwise, are turned over to a new case officer for handling. Other case officers are sometimes introduced into the operation as a back-up or as a subject expert. The primary case officer may handle the day-to-day operational aspects of the operation but may not have the in-depth knowledge required to debrief the double-agent effectively on a highly technical subject. Olson says it is not uncommon in these cases for intelligence services to insert a more knowledgeable debriefer into an operation from time to time. He continues by explaining that If the primary case officer may not be able to get a surveillance break to pick up a dead drop, for example, or may not have cover to mark or read a given signal. In that event a colleague from the residency is called on to help out–and can be identified by employed cameras or other surveillance techniques nearby. Olson states that in some long term double-agent  operations, as many as twenty or thirty opposition case officers and support personnel have been exposed in this manner.

Olson warns that things get funny when the handling or servicing officer if a double-agent operation is an illegal or nonofficial cover officer (NOC). Case officers in these categories face arrest or imprisonment if caught. For that reason, illegals or NOCs are used carefully and as a rule only handle or support a case in which the bona fides of the operation are considered airtight.

With respect to “Learning the opposition’s intelligence collection requirements”

In what Olson calls “the cat-and-mouse game” of counterintelligence, even the slightest advantage can be the difference between winning and losing. A good double-agent operation can provide a winning edge by alerting the sponsoring service to the opposition’s collection requirements. Knowing what the double-agent is being asked to provide the handler is a valuable window into what the opposition’s priorities and gaps are. A question posed would be “How much pressure is being put on the double-agent to collect intelligence in a certain area?” He says that the range of tasking is limited, of course, to what the double-agent professes his access to be,  but a good double-agent might hint at the possibility if expanded access to smoke out the opposition’s response. For example, a high technology double-agent might tell his handler that his future duties might include research in high technology devices. Olson says the question then would be: “Does the opposition service respond either alacrity or lassitude?” According to Olson, the latter reaction could indicate that this requirement is being covered by another agent.

Olson demonstrates another ploy that can be used to learn the adversary’s collection priorities which was to have a military double-agent, for example, announce to his handler that he is up for reassignment and is about to put in his wish list for a new posting. Olson says the double-agent would be prompted to ask his handler: “Where would the service like him to go?  Where does the service not want him to go? For what kind of bullet should he be applying?” Olson explains that how the handler responds can indicate the services collection priorities and gaps in locations where it thinks it can handle the double agent safely.

Olson further explains that intelligence services do not task their agents haphazardly. The requirements are generated by a systematic process that includes input from all the interested parties. In the US, for example, requirements for the intelligence community result from an elaborate consultation and give and take managed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The process is far from casual. Any intelligence service can learn a lot by analyzing the requirements given to its double agents. There is significant meaning in what the opposition service is asking for and what it is not.

Regarding “Acquiring positive intelligence”

Olson reveals that occasionally, a foreign intelligence service so believes in the trustworthiness of a double agent that it shares with that double-agent positive intelligence information. The purpose may be to give the founder agent background information to assist in his or her collection efforts. Another reason for doing so might be that the case officer-double-agent relationship may become so critical that the case officer assumes the double-agents ironclad loyalty and “talks out of school.” Olson also says a case officer may try to enhance his or her standing with the double-agent by boasting about past or current accomplishments.

With reference to “Tying up the opposition’s operations”

Every minute an opposition case officer spends on a double-agent, proffers Olson, is a wasted minute. The handlers time is wasted. Also tied up in the operation for no productive purpose are technical teams, linguists, surveillance, and analysts. Olson goes on to note that It is perhaps a perverse but still undeniable pleasure for a US counterintelligence officer to sit back to survey his or her double-agent operations and to gloat about owning a big chunk of that adversary’s time and energy. Every useless thing that a foreign intelligence service does in handling one of our double agent operations leaves less time for it to hurt us with real operations. In the great game of counterintelligence, these are gratifying victories.

As to “Taking the oppositions money”

Foreign intelligence services vary tremendously in how much they pay their agents, but Olson admits that with the right kind of material, a good double-agent can command big money. He explains that the willingness of an adversarial service to pay our double-agents large amounts of money is a good indicator of how deeply we have set the hook. 

About “Discrediting the opposition”

Commenting generally, Olson says intelligence services hate to lose face. Enough of them around the world have acquired such bad reputations for violating human rights, torture, other violent acts, and murder, that there is not too much for the many to lose in terms of good standing. They want to project to the world an image of competence, professionalism, toughness and discipline. Olson explains that any publicity that highlights their failures can undermine their support from their government and demoralize their troops. He notes that in closed societies like the Soviet Union, East Germany, China, and Cuba, intelligence services were hardly accountable to the press and public as those of Western democratic societies. However, he maintains that they still did everything they could to protect their reputations. Olson says that the same is true today of our major counterintelligence adversaries.

The US is reluctant to publicize expired double-agent operations out of fear of revealing sensitive methodology or subjecting the American principal of notoriety. In selected cases, Olson states that he would like to see US counterintelligence be more proactive in capitalizing on the other side’s failures. He believes that by doing so the US can make them gun shy about engaging in future operations against its citizens. He asserts that the US could publicize how they fell into our trap and how much they gave away to us in the process. He suggests that once they are lured into operating inside the US, counterintelligence services can do a splashy expulsion of case officers who have diplomatic immunity and arrest those who do not. As a benefit, Olson suggests the hostile service looks bad for letting itself be duped by our double-agent operation, and should pay a price for it. It loses some of its operational staff, its reputation for professionalism suffers. He feels that no mistake by the opposition should go unexploited. 

The People’s Republic of China Minister of State Security, Chen Wenqing (above). Resolving the problem of halting the torrent of successful Chinese intelligence operations against targets inside the US has hardly provided mental exaltation for the rank and file in US counterintelligence services operating in the field. US counterintelligence has lived with failure too long. Surely, a great cloud has covered any happiness of their work. The inability to put an appreciable dent in Chinese efforts has likely had some measurable impact on the morale of earnest US counterintelligence officers. Indeed, the abstruse puzzle that Chinese intelligence operations pose has most likely been an anxiety generating challenge that has pressed those given to believe it is their purview to know things others cannot know.

Suggestions Drawn from Olson’s Precepts

Do Not Fume, Think!

In Greek Mythology, there was Até, an unpredictable figure, not necessarily personified, yet represented rash, chaotic, ruinous responses by both gods and men to a situation. She was famously mentioned in Act 3, Scene 1 of  William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, when Mark Antony addresses the body of Caesar and predicts civil war: “And Caesar’s spirit ranging for revenge,/ With Até by his side, come hot from hell,/ Shall in these confines, with a monarch’s voice,/ Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.” Até has been described as a chain reaction, a mechanism in which evil succeeds evil. In finding a handle to the current espionage crisis with China, it is not a time for a “gloves off” attitude. Minds should be directed toward getting at the opponent to send a message, to bully or even to overwhelm, The requirement in this situation is subtlety, nuance, thinking, not any heavy-handed business. If any US counterintelligence officer involved cannot sustain that, he or she is working the wrong target. Informed by experience, greatcharlie is aware that it is a predilection among not all young special agents in a particular US counterintelligence service, but some, to be frightfully eager to prove something to their cohorts and to themselves. Ira furor brevis est; animum rege. (Anger is a brief madness; govern your soul (control your emotions)).

Practicing what is compulsory for all investigations in the Chinese crisis is sine qua non. However, if one’s thinking is not yielding satisfactory outcomes, then one must focus upon how and what one thinks. A corrective step must be to concentrate to enhance one’s ability to summon up new ideas and insights, study, understand, and consider the deeds of personalities. It is one thing to supposedly see everything–certainly the tools available to US counterintelligence services allow them to see an extraordinary amount of things, but another thing to properly reason from what one sees. US counterintelligence officers must think harder and conceptualize better. They must ruminate on events in relation to those that proceed them and meditate on what the future may bring. They must practice forecasting decisions by their adversary that may shape what might come and then proof their efforts by watching events unfold in reports. 

The question that must beat the brain of every US counterintelligence officer working on the matter is most likely: “Where will they strike next?” As a practical suggestion, the focus of many investigations–if not all investigations–of Chinese intelligence networks send operations might be placed on two points: those controlling networks and running operations in the field; and the composition of operations in the field.

Know Who Controls the Chinese Intelligence Networks

As it was discussed in the July 31, 2020 greatcharlie post entitled, “China’s Ministry of State Security: What Is This Hammer the Communist Party of China’s Arm Swings in Its Campaign against the US? (Part 1),” personnel of the Ministry of State Security (MSS), the civilian foreign intelligence service of China, are usually assigned overseas for up to six years, with a few remaining in post for 10 years if required. In most countries, MSS officers are accommodated by the embassy. In the US, there are seven permanent Chinese diplomatic missions staffed with intelligence personnel. MSS personnel are usually assigned overseas for up to six years, with a few remaining in post for ten years if required. In most countries, the local MSS officers are accommodated by the embassy. Having stated that, it is near certain that presently far greater numbers of MSS officers as well as officers from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Communist Party of China intelligence units are operating without official cover throughout the West. (Note: The four key bodies of the Communist Party of China’s bureaucracy at the central level for building and exercising political influence outside the party, and especially beyond China’s borders are the United Front Work Department, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the International (Liaison) Department, and the Propaganda Department.) Instead of embassies and consulates, they operate out of nongovernmental, decentralized stations. They are known to often operate out of front companies created solely for intelligence missions or out of “friendly” companies overseas run by Chinese nationals, “cut outs“, who are willing to be more heavily involved with the work of MSS and other Chinese intelligence services than most Chinese citizens would ever want to be. This approach may be a residual effect of pollination with Soviet intelligence in the past. 

There is a common misunderstanding about the Soviet KGB Rezidentura. While it is generally believed that all intelligence activity by KGB in another country was centralized through the Rezidentura in the embassy or consulate, under a Rezident with an official cover, as fully explained by former KGB Major General Oleg Kalugin in his memoir, The First Directorate: My 32 Years in Intelligence and Espionage against the West (St. Martin’s Press, 1994), there were also nonofficial Rezidenturas that operated away from Soviet diplomatic centers. Those nonofficial Rezidenturas had their own Rezident or chief of station, chain of command, missions, and lines of communication to Moscow. One might suppose that when the relationship during the Cold War was still congenial, had doubtlessly demonstrated to the Chinese, the benefits of operating two types of Rezidentura overseas, official and nonofficial. In a July 9, 2017 National Review article entitled “Everything We Know about China’s Secretive State Security Bureau”, Mattis explains that the MSS’ thirty-one major provincial and municipal sub-elements of MSS more than likely possess most of the officers, operatives, and informants and conduct the lion’s share of the operations. For some time, those provincial and municipal sub-elements performed mostly surveillance and domestic intelligence work. These provincial and municipal state security departments and bureaus By the time of Mattis’ writing, they had become small-sized foreign intelligence services. They were given considerable leeway to pursue sources. In Mattis’ view, that independence accounted for variation across the MSS in terms of the quality of individual intelligence officers and operations. At the present, the provincial and municipal state security departments and bureaus may be operating entire networks of their own in the US with appropriate guidance from MSS Headquarters and the Communist Party of China.

There are likely many unexplored possibilities that perhaps should be considered about the managers of Chinese intelligence networks in the US. Anything that can be gathered or inferred about the individuality of such a person must be put forth for study. A constant effort must be made to understand what makes the network manager tick. Using some of what is publicly known about how Chinese intelligence services have been operating in the US from a variety of sources, to include US Department of Justice indictments and criminal complaints, one might conceptualize traits that could be ascribed to those managers possibly on the ground in the US, controlling operations day-to-day, are: energy, enthusiasm, and creativity. Among their traits, one might expect that they would exude a positive attitude that encourages officers, operatives, and informants to do their utmost in the field. That energy is transmitted to US citizens and Chinese émigrés being recruited to serve the purposes of their intelligence services and, of course, the Communist Party of China. There would very likely be the hope among Chinese intelligence services and the Communist Party of China that following the detection of each of their victories by US counterintelligence services there is an opposite effect upon the officers of those organizations. Chinese intelligence services would surely hope that a sense of defeat reaches deep into the psyche of US counterintelligence services rank and file and firmly sets within them a sense of disponding woe, sorrow, and discouragement. They doubtlessly want them to feel gutted.

The managers controlling operations of Chinese foreign intelligence networks in the US have undoubtedly been selected due to their proven mental alertness, quick thinking, adaptability, and curiosity. They surely have the right stuff to be open-minded and imaginative, within authorized parameters, and are willing to adapt. Surprisingly given the iron-grip culture among managers and executives in Beijing, these “field managers” have apparently been given some leeway to use their initiative to achieve progress. It likely accounts for how the Chinese are able to react quickly to any changing circumstances. To an extent, it may also explain why Chinese intelligence services may appear to some to be so disdainful of any danger that US counterintelligence efforts might pose to their operations despite knowing that they are actively being pursued by them by the hour. To be on top of everything, the network managers are likely sharp as a tack and no doubt endlessly study what is known by Chinese intelligence about US counterintelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods, concepts and intent, and the latest counterintelligence tools US counterintelligence has fielded. Among such individuals, a solid foundation of information likely allows for the development of viable inferences and strong insights which in turn allows for confidence in using their intuition on what may come or what is coming their way. These network leaders are also likely able to identify any “bad habits” that may have ever brought US counterintelligence services too close for comfort. 

There remains the possibility that the network manager may not even be located in the US. Still, someone must be present on the ground in the US, to relay, with authority, directions from the manager and respond to inquiries and urgent matters from those operating in the field. It could be the case that they maintain modest lodgings not only to reduce costs and keep a low-profile in general. However, the presumption of a low-profile manager could also be entirely incorrect. It may very well be that they are individuals who have achieved considerable success and prominence in areas such as business and finance. As such, they, as a professional requirement, would both have access to and daily accumulate knowledge far beyond average boundaries of the latest events in industry and government. They would know what is important and urgent, what is moving things forward, what is the next big thing, who and where are the individuals influencing events and how to make contact with them and get connected to all of it. In their fields, they may be among the most capable at doing that and may have the recognition, awards, and the financial benefits that would confirm it. It would appear that they avoid engaging in any surreptitious or malign efforts in their own companies or in their own fields. However, it is still a possibility.

Such prospective network managers would very likely be untainted by any apparent or questionable affiliation with Chinese universities, the PLA, and the Communist Party of China. (That does not mean family members who may reside in China would not be thoroughly connected to such organizations.) If the individuals have family ties back to China, there would be nothing apparent about them that would make them suspicious. They would likely have no overseas travel or contacts that would create suspicion. Doubtlessly, an endless list of notables from their fields might be prepared to vouch for them. All the while, though, they would be managing intelligence operations of their networks in an exquisite fashion, and feeding back information to China vital to US national security and the key to helping US businesses maintain their competitive edge against foreign rivals. (If the manager is situated in the US, oddly enough, there may actually be a number of creative ways to draw out such senior managers of field operations. As aforementioned, greatcharlie will never offer any insights even from its position outside the bureaucracy that it believed might result in any negative outcomes for the US as it seeks to resolve the China crisis. That being stated, as stated in the December 13, 2020 greatcharlie post entitled, “Meditations and Ruminations on Chinese Intelligence: Revisiting a Lesson on Developing Insights from Four Decades Ago,” if one were to mine through the US Department of Justice’s very own indictments and criminal complaint against those few Chinese officers, operatives, and informants that have been captured, reading between the lines very closely, one can find to more than few open doors that might lead to successes against existing but well-cloaked Chinese intelligence networks and actors. Not one case has been a “wilderness of mirrors.”)

Perchance those of a younger generation would say that Chinese intelligence network managers in the US, as described here, as being  “woke,” or as the Germans would say, “wach,” both words roughly refer to them as being awake. In greatcharlie’s view, spying on the US is not woke. Nonetheless, everyday, the network managers place their keen eyes on the world around them and have a deep understanding of how people tick, how they fit in and feel where they live and work, and how they can get the ones they have targeted tangled up in their respective espionage enterprises.

Perhaps reading this, one might get the impression that greatcharlie was attempting to convince readers that Jupiter himself was running the Chinese intelligence networks. That is surely not the case. However, it must be recognized that the sort controlling those networks are likely of a very special nature. Surely, with regard to politics which is all so important in the regime of the Communist Party of China, one would expect that network managers deployed against the US, despite not having much physical contact with anyone in Beijing, would be the fair-haired boys or gals among one or more of the senior executives in MSS or even a senior leader of the Party, itself. 

Whatever any US counterintelligence service may attempt to do in an effort to break Chinese intelligence operations, its officers must be mindful that this may likely be the sort of individual they are seeking to maneuver against. Without the ability to get up close to these managers, it might be enough to conceptualize them, given the pattern of activity and interrogations of intercepted officers, operatives, and informants and reinterviewing the handful of “recent” defectors in US hands. (It is wholly plausible that the officers, operatives, and informants working in the US have never seen and do not know the identity of their network manager on the ground. They may only recognize the individual by code via orders, rectifications, responses to inquiries and requests, and inspirational messages.) If the abstract entity, de créature imaginaire, constructed here is, by coincidence, correct in every particular, there may be the rudiments to get started on trying to “steal a march” on perhaps a few of the Chinese intelligence network managers. Shaping one’s thinking against thinking and conceptualized tratits of de créature imaginaire, may be enough to open new doors. Perhaps in time, such in-depth study of these aspects will allow informed counterintelligence officers to develop true intimations, not valueless surmisals or absurd speculation, of what may be occurring and what is about to occur. In “A Story of Great Love,” published in the Winter 2011 edition of the Paris Review, Clarice Lispector writes a sentence that is amusing yet conceptually germane to what is discussed here: “Once upon a time there was a girl who spent so much time looking at her hens that she came to understand their souls and their desires intimately.”

The People’s Republic of China Consulate in Houston (above). From this now closed building, China directed government, economic, and cultural activity across the southern US. Ministry of State Security (MSS) personnel are usually assigned overseas for up to six years, with a few remaining in post for 10 years if required. In most countries, the local MSS officers are accommodated by the embassy. Having stated that, it is certain that presently far greater numbers of MSS officers as well as officers from the People’s Liberation Army and Communist Party of China intelligence units are operating without official cover throughout the West. Instead of embassies and consulates, they operate out of nongovernmental, decentralized stations.

Discover the Composition of Network Operations

One might suppose the Chinese intelligence networks in the US, as a primary purpose, unlikely conduct operations in which they blithely seek out new targets day-after-day, although there are perhaps some operations underway that serve to monitor individuals in positions that might be interest and sites of information of interest with the guidance of MSS headquarters, provincial bureaus and municipal departments based on available intelligence. The settled, more fruitful networks that have nettled US counterintelligence services the most are likely set up to run operations on targets of a certain type, rich with prospects at locations in  which Chinese intelligence operatives and informants are well ensconced. One could reasonably expect that there will be a commonality in location for both predator and prey. (Although, nothing can really be certain for espionage is a deke business.) The Chinese intelligence operation will be set up in proximity of a figurative “happy hunting ground,” a high-tech firm, laboratory, academia, political network, foreign, national security, economic, trade policymaking office, agribusiness, and aviation, and energy business to list only a handful. In addition to propinquity, there will be a common functionality of any Chinese owned business that may establish themselves in the hunting ground, and very apparent efforts to create employee links by them with their likely targets. 

Control remains essential in the authoritarian (totalitarian) regime of the Communist Party of China and therefore there is a certain specificity intrinsic to every operation–despite nuance in design, methods, and other imaginative approaches attendant–that will presumably allow for monitoring, oversight, and audits. If it ever was detected that an odd Chinese intelligence network was skillfully mixing tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods in operations conducted following an aggregate rollup of known Chinese intelligence efforts in the US, it is unlikely that particular network’s approach, while perhaps creative to the extent possible, will never stray too far from any observances that would be laid down by their respective Chinese intelligence services. If the tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods used by Chinese intelligence networks are really so similar, one could say their operations will likely have a common “DNA.” The adversary’s known practices are undoubtedly cataloged by US counterintelligence services. It will be necessary to more closely study the common functionality of networks and operations. As much information on their operations must be collected as possible. Study what has been learned by allies. Identify common vulnerabilities in every network. Identify, study, and exploit their deficiencies.

As much of what the networks Chinese intelligence services are exactly doing day-to-day in the US remains unknown publicly at least, it is impossible to say with certainty how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their operations. One can imagine there has been some impact. Nevertheless, given that reality, in considering how COVID-19 factors into their efforts, one must again enter the world of supposition in which one analysis of how those networks are not only operating, but more specifically, how managers of those networks are communicating with Beijing and with their officers, operatives, and informants, can be just as good as another.

Even before COVID-19 hit, for Chinese intelligence networks on the ground in the US, managing communications in any direction was imaginably no mean feat. As it was discussed in the August 31, 2020 greatcharlie post entitled, “China’s Ministry of State Security: What Is This Hammer the Communist Party of China’s Arm Swings in Its Campaign Against the US? (Part 2).” Perhaps, the main lesson for Chinese intelligence services was that it was not safe to continue creating and maintaining secret communications or reports, any truly important documents, electronically. It was the same as leaving an open door to foreign intelligence service penetration. The transition back to paper would be the best answer and easy enough. Indeed, the use of hard documents and files was what the most seasoned foreign intelligence and counterintelligence officers were most familiar with using. Moreover, they are very likely individuals of conservative habits, and never became so familiar with computer work as their younger counterparts. The return to paper files would certainly lead to the collection of what would now be thought of as considerable amounts of documents. File rooms and vaults have very likely been rebuilt or returned to service. Urgent issues concerning diplomatic matters were likely communicated via encrypted transmissions. There was very likely a sharp increase in transmissions once the consulate received notice that it was being forced to close. Use of that medium would provide some reasonable assurance that content of the communication would be protected. Nothing of any real importance was likely communicated by telephone given that the US would surely successfully eavesdrop on the conversation. 

One might venture to say that a likely move to hard documents may have been evinced when the world observed presumably Ministry of Foreign Affairs security officers and MSS intelligence officers using fire bins to burn bundles of documents inside the compound of the People’s Republic of China Consulate in Houston, Texas as it prepared to close. It might be the case that burning the documents is standard operating procedure for Chinese diplomatic outposts in such instances as an evacuation. MSS counterintelligence would hardly think that US intelligence and counterintelligence services would pass up the fortuitous opportunity to search through or even keep some or all of the documents consulate personnel might try to ship or mail to China while evacuating the building, even if containers of documents were sent as diplomatic pouches.

From what is publicly known, it appears that Chinese intelligence networks do not recruit after simply spotting a potential operative or informant. If that were the case, the success rate of US counterintelligence services against them would be far higher given the opportunities such activities would present and given the experience of their organizations in dealing with such a basic set up. Chinese intelligence services clearly work wholly on their own terms, investigating only those “targets” who they choose to investigate, essentially ignoring anyone that may have the slightest appearance of being dangled before them. It is a benefit for them to operate in what could be called a target rich environment in the US. Recruitment is “by invitation only.” If one is not on the figurative guest list, one does not get in! As part of their investigations of targets for recruitment, doubtlessly it is important to identify the psychological profile of a person, his political orientation, his attitude towards his motherland, China or towards the US, where he or she has become a citizen or visiting for school or long-term employment. And then, after accumulating a sizable amount of material (based on a whole array of undertakings: plain observation, audio- and video-surveillance of the places of residence, agency-level scrutiny, including “honey traps”), on the basis of the analysis, a decision is made about a transforming the investigation into a recruitment with appropriate conditions (such as through compromising materials or a voluntary agreement) or about wrapping up the whole matter by “educating” a foreigner, conveying a favorable message on China and the wave of the future, Chairman Mao Zedong’s vision of Communism.

After studying what is being specifically done by a network long enough, one will begin to see dimly what a network or specific operation is driving at. After finding a few missing links, an entirely connected case will not always, but can be obtained. Once a clear picture emerges, one can start developing attack vectors against Chinese intelligence networks with a forecast of nearly assured fruits. Lately, the identification and aim at any networks has clearly been far less than accurate. Do not use individuals lacking good judgment and sanguine required based on one’s own standard. Create the best team possible. Know your people well. Keep a close eye on neophytes. (As touched on in the discussion of Olson’s “Ten Commandments of Counterintelligence” of Chapter Four in greatcharlie’s review of To Catch a Spy, a supposition verging on the ridiculous must be seen as such by a supervisor and appropriately knocked down. A keen interest must be kept on how subordinates, especially novices, are reasoning with facts. A supposition verging on the ridiculous might involve imputing criminal motive or involvement on a party that could not have been part of a criminal conspiracy or ascribing characteristics to an individual who could not possibly possess them or has not displayed them. A good case could be blighted by such wrongheadedness.)

Gnawing a bit further at the matter of using young, novice counterintelligence officers on such delicate cases concerning Chinese intelligence, one should avoid the pitfall of allowing them to manage surveillance work for a case and turn it into something that might more reflect the work of a security service in a totalitarian country to soothe their egos. Be mindful of the use of time, energy, and budget by them such as placing heavy, wasteful surveillance on the street not to advance the casework but to prove some immature point of power. Casting some wide net will bring in nothing but a lot of extra things that time, energy and money cannot be wasted upon. Differ nothing to their judgment. Every mistake or misstep made by US counterintelligence, whether the result of a manager’s use of some clever misdirection or whether self-inflicted, represents a success for a Chinese intelligence network manager. Keep firmly in mind the managers of Chinese intelligence networks are flexible enough in their thinking that they appear to be able to change horses in midstream while maintaining the metaphoric helm on a steady heading so to speak. 

Concerning contractors, by their nature, they are owned and managed by businessmen out to make money as priority. That focus among many of them can be boiled down to the  precept, “minimum effort, maximum gain” and that can be most apparent in how they conduct their so-called operations on the street. As already alluded to here, their “operatives,” often poorly vetted before being “hired,” many times find it difficult in the field, physically surveilling a target or trying to open a clandestine conversation, to be their higher selves. They are often too aggressive, even ruthless, and engage in what could politely be called “aberrant behavior.” Strangely enough, for many contractors, the reality that their operatives display these characteristics is a point of pride.. As it was discussed in greatcharlie’s January 31, 2020 review of To Catch a Spy, the negative behavior of contractors witnessed in the field by an adversarial intelligence service’s officers, operatives, and informants could very likely have an impact on their impressions of US counterintelligence services beyond what has already been inculcated within them by their masters. It should be expected that any negative impressions could have the deleterious effect of negatively impacting a decision to defect or be recruited if the idea might ever cross their minds. It is impossible to calculate, but it surely can be imagined that a number of potential defectors and recruits may have been deterred from taking the first step over this very issue. Recognizably, there is a reduced ability to effectively oversee what contractors are doing at all times on behalf of US counterintelligence services. At best, the managers of a particular counterintelligence operation that they may be hired to support will only know what the contractors divulge about their efforts. Close observance of them in operation, done furtively by managers of US counterintelligence services, would doubtlessly substantiate this.

Those in US counterintelligence services considering what is noted here might cast their minds back to the observation of the renowned 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal in Pensées (1670): “Justice without power is inefficient; power without justice is tyranny. Justice without power is opposed, because there are always wicked men. Power without justice is soon questioned. Justice and power must therefore be brought together, so that whatever is just may be powerful, and whatever is powerful may be just.”

Surely at one time the relationship between contractors and US counterintelligence services was quite beneficial as they provided real assistance through manpower and talent, but again, the situation has since changed considerably. They are shadows of what they once were in terms of quality.  Beyond some possible invaluable assistance they may be providing through precious outside of the bureaucracy analysis and advice on Chinese intelligence activities in the US, in the China case, US counterintelligence services should severely minimize or eliminate contractors if possible. There may be a place for such contractors and their ways in counternarcotics, organized crime control, human-trafficking or some other kind of criminal investigations. However, up against the sophisticated intelligence services of a determined adversary as China, those contractors are not a credit to US counterintelligence services. They are nothing but a liability. The China case is too important to indulge in any uncertainties. On an additional point, technical intelligence tools must be utilized effectively and appropriately. Monitor only those who need to be monitored. Resist the urge to play George Orwell’s “Big Brother.” That urge is another weakness. Nimia illæc licentia profecto evadet in aliquod magnum malum. (This excessive license will most certainly eventuate in some great evil.)

The continued success Chinese intelligence services and counterintelligence services in being to conceal their massive espionage efforts may suggest that conceptually, they may approach establishing their presence in the US with the thought of “peacefully coexisting” in the same environment as US counterintelligence services. The relationship that they seem to have sought with US counterintelligence services in order to ensure the security of their networks and operations is not “cat and mouse” or combative. It is strangely, but logically, symbiotic. 

That symbiotic relationship, however, is malignant, and designed to be parasitical. To that end, managers of Chinese intelligence and counterintelligence services in the US likely respond to any detection of the presence of US counterintelligence personnel or activity not by avoiding them, but by connecting in some smart way to them. Connecting to them, to give a couple of simple examples means having operatives work for a contractor engaged in physical surveillance, or take on low level employment in or around offices of those contractors. From such positions and similar ones, they would enable themselves to monitor the most well-orchestrated, well-conducted activities from the inside. Some operatives, finding work as operatives in the agencies of contractors for US counterintelligence services  could actually become, and have very likely actually been, part of those operations. Note that operatives of Chinese foreign intelligence and counterintelligence services directed to get close to US counterintelligence services personnel and activities may not necessarily be ethnic Chinese. (For a fuller discussion of that matter, see the July 31, 2020 greatcharlie post “China’s Ministry of State Security: What Is this Hammer the Communist Party of China’s Arm Swings in Its Campaign against the US? (Part 1).”) Such a precaution would likely be deemed less necessary by managers of Chinese foreign intelligence and counterintelligence services for operatives placed within or close proximity of contractors offices and personnel as those managers have likely become well-aware of the astonishing lack of due diligence and security practiced by them. Surely, US counterintelligence activities of greatest interest would be those against Chinese foreign intelligence networks and operations. However, there would undoubtedly be significant and considerable value in being aware of physical surveillance activities by US counterintelligence services against the other adversaries of those services. There is every reason to believe cooperative relationships exist among the intelligence services of US adversaries. To say the least, there would be some monetary value in information collected by China of that kind.

Much as some parasites, those operatives who might successfully penetrate any organizations of or pertaining to US counterintelligence services would never act directly  to destroy those personnel or organizations but would rather only nourish themselves off  of them by collecting critical information from them for the security and survival of Chinese Intelligence activities in the US. Reminding again of what might be called Olson’s maxim from To Catch a Spy, “Penetration is the best counterintelligence.” One can almost be certain that senior executives and managers in adversarial foreign intelligence services surely believe that, too! That is something for US counterintelligence services to be very concerned about.

With regard to working with quantitative data, broken down to the essentials, it must continually be used to keep US counterintelligence officers cognizant and well appraised of activity by confirmed Chinese intelligence officers, operatives, and informants tied to diplomatic missions. With quantitative data, users ought to drill down on data concerning their daily and hourly activity from communications to commuting. One must be able to discern even the slightest changes in activity, whether increased or decreased. Data should be reviewed daily to identify the slightest changes from the aggregate numbers. Revisiting data that has already been rolled up and aggregated is also advised. It should be mined through for more details, clues. (One should never get so caught up with data to believe that an opponent’s actions can be reduced to an algorithm. The opposition’s leaders are living, breathing, agile, flexible and–despite working in Communist China–potentially unconventional thinkers.)

Getting Results

Measures of success of the practices suggested here may hopefully be a marked increased prospective opportunities to: neutralize; displace; and, intercept, even recruit, from a targeted Chinese intelligence network.

1. Displace

If the purpose of US counterintelligence is to displace a Chinese intelligence network or operation, the rapid shutdown of an operation would be a sign of success in that endeavor. The threat of intercept or the very public revelation that an officer, operative, or informant in the network has been apprehended would naturally spur such an action. If the environment is made hot enough for the network, its managers and the remainder of their string of officers, operatives, and informants will indubitably go to ground with the hope of resurrecting their network with its diffuse operations at a more favorable point in time. However, if an operation has packed up and moved out, there will be a palpable change in the working atmosphere for the counterintelligence officer who has had their noses to grindstone working the case. In a frenzied rush to exit the US, individual suspected Chinese intelligence officers, working in academia or industry, in physical isolation from their compatriots, or ones that may appear to be operating independently and farthest away from their network compatriots and resources, may no longer see the need to carry on with any pretenses. It is also interesting to see that there is never mention of any effort by Chinese intelligence officers, operatives, or informants to figuratively throw dust in the eyes of those investigating, plant false leads or use other means to misdirect, as they make their escape.

Interviews can be used as a psychological tool to prompt displacement. For the network manager who is logical, visits to the residence or workplace of a subject of investigation by US counterintelligence officer to invite them for an interview in the respective office of their service, or to interview them at that location, may be viewed as probing based on some insight possessed by the adversary. There is the odd chance a network manager might believe a US counterintelligence service was on to something. However, it would seem they would more likely think a US counterintelligence service would “hold its cards a little closer” if it had something solid to act on. If the network manager is thinking in that way, it would mean  he or she has been trying to see through all things cooked up by US counterintelligence. Surely, for the Chinese intelligence  services as much as those of the US, studying their oppositions modus operandi is as important a task as anything else.

Operatives and informants, on the other hand, may become jittery. However, such a visit may not unnerve the network manager. The reaction of a network manager may be no visible  reaction at all. He or she will likely continually display nerve and knowledge. The possibility of such interviews has likely already crossed the managers mind. The network manager has likely already assessed how officers, operatives, and informants in his or her retinue will act or react when approached. The task of the network manager will be to deduce what triggered the interview, reason from cause to effect what is the likely course of events to follow, and act accordingly. That being stated, activities and especially the communications of those approached for interviews must be monitored. New travel plans by individuals with some association to those interviewed, scheduled closely by date, must be examined.

2. Neutralize

To assist in determining where to interdict, stand up a “Red Team” on a non-stop basis, using templates properly constructed from everything known and insights and inferences on Chinese operations and to continue to build up a legend for de créature imaginaire with the objective of achieving increasing accuracy. Among tools that should be made available for use in neutralizing Chinese intelligence officers, operatives, and informants, should be heavy financial rewards for “coming forward”; and whistle-blower-like protections. Casting one’s mind back to the “Chieu Hoi” program used to contend with the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, US counterintelligence services, using an approach certainly not the same but conceptually similar to that, may very well be able net a few long-time operatives and informants of China see intelligence services with deep involvement in their efforts, who may have had their fill of the whole business and want to get out, but safely. Cela n’a rien d’évident. (The fact that the Chieu Hoi program was implemented in an Asian country is purely coincidental. No deliberate connection regarding a region, race, or political philosophy was made. The parallel is that much as the Viet Cong, Chinese foreign intelligence officers in particular, but any operatives and informants as well are often “true believers,” who act out of conviction. Similar to the Viet Cong, they are driven by a deep-seeded ideology. In their unique case, it is usually the erroneous belief that China is the champion of the oppressed and will become the dominant power in the world.) In case the point has been misunderstood, heavy financial rewards for them would mean steep rewards. Ideally, the result will be to threaten the rewards structure, financial and psychological, of the Chinese foreign intelligence and counterintelligence services. If money would not be the elixir to turn any Chinese intelligence officers, operatives, or informants, US counterintelligence services would only need to pose the question to themselves: Deployed to the US and caught in the business of spying, what else would truly satisfy them enough to cause them to  defect or to become a double? If the situation becomes desperate enough, ask the targeted Chinese intelligence officer, operative, or informant: “What do you want? Name it!” (In other words, at least to get things moving, do whatever it takes, but within reason!) Turning Chinese operatives and informants should ideally take on the appearance of something akin to a business enterprise while actually being a counterintelligence task, if successful. Cela encore n’a rien d’évident. (Note, however, that money can become poisonous in both directions, creating temptation among those in service ranks unfortunately disposed to transgressions. Therefore, its distribution must be very carefully supervised.)

To be succinct, the hope of US counterintelligence should be to come in contact with an officer, operative, or informant with an albeit idealistic vision of China as the dominant power and shape of the world for the future, but with reservations, serious reservations. Those sentiments would need to be worked on. The next best hope would be to find the officer, operative, or informant who is not doing things for an ideal, and whose reasons for turning on China would be venal. Pretio parata vincitur pretio fides. (Fidelity bought by money is overcome by money)

3. Intercept

Non capiunt lepores tympana rauca leves. (Drumming is not the way to catch a hare.) This could be entirely off the mark, but it appears that aggressive counterintelligence appears to have been directed at targets of opportunity versus the industry-centric networks of Chinese intelligence in the US. While there may be a meretricious benefit to this practice, it accomplishes nothing in terms of tearing down Chinese intelligence networks or smothering greater espionage operations. Again, elevated thinking is required. There must be an inflexion point at which US counterintelligence services become the fox, and the days of being the chicken come to an end. Better use must be made of tools available and good practices. There must be better use of deception. To lure Chinese intelligence networks into traps, network managers and higher ups in the Chinese system must be convinced that the figurative cheese in the trap is something worth the risk of trying to take. Psychological operations must be used to draw them closer to targets US counterintelligence can cover while remaining concealed. As part of the information warfare campaign with China, an effort must be made to surreptitiously “assist” Beijing in discovering a novel target worth pursuing. Chinese intelligence services have enjoyed a halcion season of success. They apparently have no intention of being thrown off their pace and streak of victories by what they in all likelihood suspect are attempts by US counterintelligence to score a victory against their effort during their moment of glory.

US counterintelligence officers must do their utmost to go beyond the normal scope in determining what will attract Chinese intelligence network managers. They must not proceed by pretending to know. There is no room for guesswork. Approaches developed must not be derivative. They must put as much time as necessary into developing them to become as certain as humanly possible that any new approaches will work. Any enticement or manipulation must not give off any indication of being a plant nor chicken feed. It must appear as genuine gold dust. Under extremely controlled circumstances, it may need to be actual gold dust! What is left is to wait for the network to show itself. There is nothing else to do otherwise. Efforts to stoke or prompt the adversary will lead to blowing the entire set up. Impatience is what the Chinese will look for because that is what every other foreign intelligence service expects of US counterintelligence.

Logically, it would be a capital mistake for Chinese Intelligence services to adulterate what could likely be characterized as an operation in which every aspect was well-known with individuals of ultimately unknown character, loyalties, or reliability and targets of likely no immediate unknown value and of no prior interest or desire. As senior executives and managers in Beijing might assess, if anything suddenly put before them was truly of any immediate value or desirable to China, the individuals or the information would have respectively been recruited or stolen already. Assuredly, that is the pinch for US counterintelligence services when it comes to getting decent double-agent operation off the ground.

John le Carré, the renowned author of espionage novels of the United Kingdom who served in both both the Security Service, MI5, and the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, during the 1950s and 1960s, offers the statement in The Honourable Schoolboy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1977): “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” US counterintelligence officers must be mindful of what may be perceived in the conference room as an advantage over the opposition intelligence network manager may be the ugly product of groupthink. They must judge perceptions in view of what is  actually known about that opponent, even if he or she remains de créature imaginaire and how that manager may act in response to what they plan to put in his or her way. Use of aggressive tactics or overwhelming superiority can be turned into a liability by an agile thinker. It is also important to understand that no matter how the Chinese intelligence network or operation may be approached, everything done, particularly if successful, will be studied by superiors in Beijing so that all gaps that may have been exploited in a disrupted, displaced, or destroyed network will be rapidly and quietly set right in all remaining networks. Operational missteps that might have been exploited will be identified and never made again. (Be observant for changes in practices among networks and operations being traced.) In view of what Beijing may learn from an initial attack, adjustments in the next US counterintelligence strike against a Chinese intelligence network or operation must be considered even before the first is executed. In a cycle, this approach to attacking Chinese intelligence networks and operations must be adjusted for each new situation and repeated.

To go a step further, one might speculate that having achieved countless victories with near impunity inside the US, Chinese foreign intelligence services now very likely conduct counterintelligence exercises in the field, likely in a nondisruptive way vis-a-vis ongoing operations, to ensure that in their present state, their intelligence networks are free from US counterintelligence detection and interference and that no intelligence service from anywhere could play havoc with them. 

It is unlikely that the senior executives and managers of Chinese foreign Intelligence services are sitting back and gloating about their victories. Rather, it is very likely that everyday they work harder and harder to make their networks and operations better and more effective, pushing their espionage capabilities far-beyond the reach of the counterintelligence services of the countries in which they operate. All of that being said, one might still imagine that soon enough, in a gesture aimed at figuratively putting some dirt in the eyes of US counterintelligence services, the Chinese foreign intelligence services may spend some hours planning some upheaval that their networks could cause in the US to embarrass US counterintelligence services. It would imaginably be designed to knock them well-off track and symbolically mark China’s domination of their opponent on his own home ground. China would also be sending a message concerning its dominance throughout the espionage world. Of course, despite its meretricious effect, whatever such a potential ploy might be, it would doubtlessly be conducted in such a way that the government in Beijing and the Communist Party of China would feel enabled to plausibly deny China’s connection to the action. (These are only some thoughts, ruminations, on the situation. Hopefully, this should not cause any undue concern. Or, cela n’a rien d’évident.)

The Chinese have likely concluded US foreign intelligence and counterintelligence services are under stress and are bound to take risks to score a victory or win the whole ball game. To that extent, it is unlikely Beijing wants its intelligence services reaching after anything when their plates are already full follow up on leads they created for themselves. It is possible that the Chinese foreign intelligence services have never seen US counterintelligence services get anything substantial started against their networks in terms of penetration. However, the Chinese will unlikely mistake quiet for security. They probably never really feel secure in the US. It is hard to imagine what might ever be worth the candle to Chinese intelligence services to reach after. Impatience in any US operation would most likely be considered anathema.

People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping (above). Given the success of Chinese intelligence services in the US, China might soon enough choose to send a message to symbolically mark China’s domination of their opponent on his own home ground. and its dominance in the espionage world. Chinese foreign intelligence services operating in the US may spend some time planning an upheaval that would figuratively put some dirt in the eyes of US counterintelligence services. Despite any meretricious effect such an act might have, whatever such a potential deplorable ploy might be, it would doubtlessly be conducted in such a way that the government in Beijing and the Communist Party of China would be able to plausibly deny their connection to the action.

The Way Forward

Month after month, US counterintelligence services discover another set of occasions when China has incommoded federal agency, a private firm, an academic institution, or research institute by stealing from them classified information or intellectual property most often vital to the national interest. Leave it to say, having engaged in an empirical study of public facts coming in what has been transpiring, the potential trajectory of China’s malign efforts is breathtaking. By 2021, it should have been the case that MSS networks were being regularly penetrated by US counterintelligence and rolled up in waves at times chosen by US counterintelligence services. Ongoing and developing MSS operations should have already been heavily infiltrated and those infiltrated operations which are not destroyed should be used as conduits to push disinformation back to China. As for individuals recruited by MSS, many should have already been identified as a result of US counterintelligence infiltration of MSS networks and at appropriate moments, those operatives and informants should have been intercepted, neutralized, and recruited as counterespionage agents. However, that is not the case. Perhaps in some allied country, success against China will be achieved showing US counterintelligence services the way forward. With a long history of successfully defending the United Kingdom from foreign spies, it may very well be that MI5 will not have the Cabinet, the Prime Minister, the exalted person herself, wait much longer for good news.

Whether this essay for some will cause a journey from unawareness, curiosity, or a lack of clarity to knowledge, remains to be seen. There has been more than enough talk about how bad the problem with China is. That becomes by the by. There must be more talk about how to defeat it. The US must move from the defensive to the offensive, and take the game back to China and destroy all of its networks. It could be the case that US counterintelligence officers must relearn and hone the skill of lying before the water course and awaiting the big game. Many plans can be developed to advance against a problem. However, choosing the right plan, the one that will work, is the challenge. Much as with physicians, for investigators, every symptom must be told before a diagnosis can be provided. In a very small way here, greatcharlie has sought to contribute to development more effective approaches to defeat Chinese intelligence collection efforts in the US. Before writing this essay, greatcharlie fully understood and accepted that there are those singular US counterintelligence services that would be completely uninterested in, and even shun, any voice or meditations from outside the bureaucracy that would dare offer assistance to them in their struggle with China’s intelligence services. (It must be stated that greatcharlie has either been retained to supply any imaginable deficiencies of US counterintelligence services nor has it been retained for anything by any of them.) Often in the US national security bureaucracy, perspectives on adversaries can become too austere. Over time, even unknowingly, walls are built around those perspectives, fending off an effort to more accurately understand an adversary at the present that may shake the foundations of them. That sort of mindset, as suggested,, perhaps an unconscious bias, can creep its way in and become comfortable. That can spell disaster. This may very well be the case with Chinese foreign intelligence activity in the US.

With a near endless chain of losses, the following theft sometimes being a greater defeat than the one proceeding it, greatcharlie feels compelled to ingeminate the position expressed in the conclusion of its August 31, 2020 greatcharlie post US counterintelligence services should consider hiring individuals from outside the bureaucracy who are already known due to demonstrated interest in the subject matter and recognized as possessing some ability to present what may be unorthodox innovative, forward-looking perspectives. New thinkers can rejuvenate the analytical process, effectively serving to unearth directions and areas for examination and offer hypotheses, good ones, that otherwise would be ignored. In effect, surface layers could be peeled off to reveal what may have been missed for a long time. From the inside, one might characterize observations and hypotheses offered by outsiders as mere surmisals and suppositions from those perceived lacking the necessary depth of understanding that long time analysts bring to an issue. With no intent to condescend, one might assess responses of that type would be defensive and emotional, and least likely learned. The purpose of using such perspectives is to have a look at issues from other angles. Thinking outside the bureaucracy would hopefully move away from the usual track, the derivative, the predictable, especially in special cases that may be hard to crack. Indeed, what outsider brings to the analysis of an issue, through the examination of people and events and interpretation of data, is the application of different sensibilities founded on knowledge acquired after having passed through a multitude experiences that might very well have thwarted the recruitment of the outside the box thinker. One could say the length and breadth of that knowledge and experience allowed for an alternative understanding of humanity. Such an understanding also could have been sought through personal study. 

The suggestion should not seem so exotic at this point. Even the adversaries of the US would likely imagine the possibility that some assistance from an unexpected source and direction could pose the greatest threat to their success. Perhaps some US counterintelligence services will never brook the idea of receiving such assistance from outside the bureaucracy. However, in the end, the US counterintelligence service which opens itself up to new, thinking, new insights, new approaches, will very likely bag its tiger. Vigilando, agendo, bene consulendo, prospera omnia cedunt. (By watching, by doing, by consulting well, these things yield all things prosperous.)

China’s Ministry of State Security: What Is This Hammer the Communist Party of China’s Arm Swings in Its Campaign against the US? (Part 1)

The Headquarters of the Ministry of State Security (above). China’s primary civilian intelligence service engaged in the political warfare struggle against the US is the Ministry of State Security (MSS). Yet, while fully involved in that work, MSS has adhered to its bread and butter mission of stealing national security and diplomatic secrets with specific regard to the US. It has also robustly enhanced another mission of grabbing intellectual property and an array of cutting-edge technologies from the US. This essay provides a few insights from outside the box on the MSS, the tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods, it believes, help to keep China secure and help to improve China’s capabilities and capacity to compete and struggle with the US.

There was a time not so long ago when discussion in US foreign policy circles concerning China centered on issues such as trade, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South China Sea, North Korean denuclearization, and human rights. Now the primary focus of discussion is the coronavirus. China is where the virus originated and was surely ineptly handled, setting the stage for the current pandemic. How China has responded to the crisis turned pandemic has been a source of curiosity and absolute outrage globally. Despite preening about its own advances in science and medicine, China proved not to be up to the task of handling the outbreak that most experts agree more than likely began disastrously in a Wuhan laboratory. It is difficult to fully comprehend what on Earth went on in the minds of China’s leadership upon learning about their country’s coronavirus epidemic. Shutting down cities and restricting travel was among the means to control the spread among their own citizens but China’s government was quite derelict in ensuring the virus would not break out around the rest of the world. Worse, the Communist Party of China and the National Party Congress were unapologetic and frightfully defensive concerning all discussion of China’s role in what was happening. China very quickly became exercised with the US over the matter. They became particularly warm toward US President Donald Trump. The words of official spokespeople were certainly not seasoned in grace. Although it has found itself in an unpleasant, contentious relationship with the US as a result of its own doing, Beijing has nevertheless effectively doubled-down on the behavior that exacerbated the situation. China’s government spokespeople will most likely continue to assail the global media with waves of distortions. At the same time around the world, the number of people infected by the coronavirus continues to increase, the death toll rises, and the financial loss is being calculated in the trillions. Hopefully, People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping is well-aware of what is transpiring and has set some type of guidance on just how far this whole cabaret put on by Beijing should go. Numquam enim temeritas cum sapienta commiscetur. (For rashness is never mixed together with wisdom.)

The figurative hammer of the foreign and national security policy apparatus swung by the arm of the Communist Party of China against the US is China’s intelligence services. They are the ones on the front lines of the political warfare struggle. Among those intelligence services, the primary element engaged is the Ministry of State Security (MSS). The Ministry of State Security is the embodiment of the logic that created the Chinese system’s intimidating, authoritarian order and for years has choreographed events to accomplish the Communist Party’s purposes. To that extent, the Communist Party of China has entrusted the defense of “their creation,” the modern Communist Chinese state, to this complex government organization. China has only offered soupçons about the MSS, and even less than that lately. Unless one is engaged in diplomatic, intelligence, defense, military, or law enforcement work, MSS is an elements of the Chinese government with which most outsiders when engaged in their normal business related to China, whether inside the country, in a country near by, or even at home, will have contact, but will often be completely unaware. The ostensible purpose and task of MSS is to defend China against external as well as internal threats. By performing its mission of collecting vital information about China’s friends, allies, competitors and adversaries MSS gives the leadership of the Communist Party of China time to make decisions and space to take action. To that extent, the MSS has adhered to its bread and butter mission of stealing national security and diplomatic secrets with specific regard to the US. However, it has also robustly enhanced another mission of collecting intellectual property and an array of cutting-edge technologies from the US. The Communist Party of China is surely counting upon it to successfully take on China’s adversaries in a large way with a small footprint. Interestingly though, there has been far greater discernment worldwide of MSS political warfare activities than Beijing might have imagined. The immediate implication of that has been the infliction of considerable damage to China’s reputation as a world leader. Veritas nimis saepe laborat; exstinguitur numquam. (The truth too often labors (is too often hard pressed); it is never extinguished.)

This essay does not focus on the political warfare effort by MSS, the nuts and bolts of which are somewhat straight forward, and compressed into summary form in the March 31, 2020 greatcharlie post entitled, “Commentary: Beijing’s Failed Political Warfare Effort Against US: A Manifestation of Its Denial Over Igniting the Coronavirus Pandemic”. It focuses on what the Ministry of State Security (MSS) is and what it does, day-to-day, for China. It is presented in two sections. This section, “Part 1,” provides greatcharlie’s insights from outside the box on the MSS and the tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods it believes both help to keep China secure and help to improve China’s capabilities and capacity to compete and struggle with the US. That discussion is buttressed by a few celebrated and trusted sources. “Part 2” continues that discussion and, without an ax to grind, greatcharlie calls attention to how, over recent years, a number of less-familiar, self-inflicted wounds have hindered the prosecution of a successful campaign by US counterintelligence services against the MSS as well as other Chinese intelligence services. The extent to which those same issues concerning US counterintelligence services have impacted the Trump administration is also touched upon. Without pretension, greatcharlie states that there is no reason for it to believe policymakers and decisionmakers in the White House and among US foreign affairs, defense, and intelligence organizations, would have a professional interest in its meditations on MSS intelligence operations in the US. However, it is greatcharlie’s hope that if given some attention, perhaps in some small way it might assist those who work on matters of gravity in this province improve their approach to defeating and displacing the MSS networks and operations as well as those of its sister organizations in the US. Bonus adiuvate, conservate popular Romanum. (Help the good (men) save (metaphorically in this case) the Roman people.)

People’s Republic of China Chairman Mao Zedong (left) and Kang Sheng (right). After the defeat of Imperial Japanese forces in China and prior to 1949, the Communust Party of China’s main intelligence institution was the Central Department of Socialism Affairs (CDSA). CDSA was placed under the control of Kang Sheng, a longtime political associate of Mao with a linkage from the past to Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. With the Communist Party’s victory over Chang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces, CDSA became one among a full array of government intelligence organizations that were created to supplement Party-based intelligence services. CDSA would draw information from foreign news agencies and open sources. It was hardly a very rewarding business.

Chinese Intelligence Under the Communist Party: The Beginning

The foundation of the Chinese intelligence services was laid during the revolutionary period in which the Communist Party of China sought to establish its rule. In the early 1930s, two intelligence services existed. One was centered in Shanghai and the Communist Party, the othjer was based in the Chinese Communist government that existed in Shaanxi where Mao Zedong established his base after the Long March. The later intelligence service proved to be the stronger of the two. By the late 1930s, it was replaced by a newly created Social Affairs Department (SAD) within the Communist Party. Within the years of struggle against Imperial Japanese forces in China, there was the Yan’an Rectification, from 1942 to 1944, in which Mao consolidated his paramount role in the Communist Party of China. Yan’an was also the part of the ten year period in which: Mao established his premier role in the Party; the Party’s Constitution, endorsing Marxist-Leninism and Maoist thought as its guiding ideologies, was adopted (Mao’s formal  deviation from the Soviet line and his determination to adapt Communism to Chinese conditions); and, the postwar Civil war between the Communists and the Kuomintang. Prior to 1949, the Communist Party of China’s main intelligence institution was the Central Department of Social Affairs (CDSA). CDSA was placed under the control of Kang Sheng, a longtime political associate of Mao with a linkage from the past to Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. With the Communist Party’s victory over Chang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces, CDSA became one among a full array of government intelligence organizations were created to supplement Party-based intelligence services. CDSA would draw information from foreign news agencies and open sources. It was hardly a very rewarding business.

The Ministry of Public Security was established as China’s principal intelligence service at the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. It, too, was placed under the leadership of Kang Sheng. CDSA fell into the hands of Li Kenong, a deputy chief of staff to People’s Liberation Army (PLA) chief of staff Chou Enlai and a vice minister for foreign affairs. The main role of the MPS, as with all previous Chinese intelligence services, was to serve the interests of the Communist Party of China. However, as time passed, it was also officially given jurisdiction over counter subversion, counterintelligence, and conducting espionage in Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Overseas during the 1950s, most Chinese diplomatic missions accommodated the MPS with an Investigation and Research Office for intelligence collection staffed by CDSA personnel, with analysis performed by the Eighth Bureau, publicly known in 1978 as the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. In 1953, CDSA became the Central Investigation Department (CID). In China, the MPS presence was nearly ubiquitous, as it kept a watchful eye on China’s population. It was energetically engaged in monitoring Chinese who returned from abroad. To cope with what it determined to be errant citizens, MPS ran labor reform camps. MPS personnel were known for behaving harshly among its own citizens. That behavior was said to be reflective of the violent mentality of its initial leader, Kang. Despite his alleged romance with Mao’s wife, Kang was far from a charming man. Rather, he was known for being an absolute brute. He would move on to become a member of the Communist Party of China Political Bureau, and Li Kenong moved up to take command there. In 1962, the decision was made to move Ministry of Public Security counterespionage functions over to the CID.

The 1960s were a volatile time for Chinese intelligence services as with all military institutions in China. Li Kenong died in 1962 and in 1966 he was succeeded by Luo Quinchang, who had been adopted by Kang in 1958 and ushered into the MPS. However, the MPS became involved in the power struggles that embroiled the Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution. Mao, feeling his power base was threatened mainly as a result of his failed Great Leap Forward, implemented the “Four Cleans Movement,” with the objective of purifying politics, economics, ideas, and organization of reactionaries, led by a one time ally, Luo Quinchang of MPS. His staff files were seized and mined for candidates for criticism and banishment to the lao jiao prison system.

Kang Sheng (above). The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) was established as China’s principal intelligence service at the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. It, too, was placed under the leadership of Kang Sheng. The main role of the MPS, as with all previous Chinese intelligence services, was to serve the interests of the Communist Party of China. As time passed, it was also officially given jurisdiction over counter subversion, counterintelligence, and conducting espionage in Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. MPS personnel were known for behaving harshly among its own citizens. That behavior was said to be reflective of the mentality of Kang, who was known for being an absolute brute.

Most of the leadership of the CID was sent to the countryside for reeducation and the organization, itself, was abolished for a time. Its activities and assets were absorbed by the Second Department of the PLA’s general staff taking over its duties. The Second Department oversaw human intelligence collection to include military attachés at Chinese embassies overseas clandestine collection agents sent to other countries to collect military information, and the analysis of overt sources of information. Mao turned to Kang to ensure that his ideological and security directives were implemented. Kang, Mao’s wife Jiang, Wang Hongwen, Yao Wenyuan, Zhang Chunqiao, dubbed the “Gang of Four,” worked together in a campaign to renew China’s revolutionary spirit. With the assistance of the Red Guards, a mass student led paramilitary movement mobilized and guided by Mao from 1996 to 1967, the Gang of Four set out to destroy the “Four Olds” of society: old customs, old culture, old habits, old ideas. The Red Guards were particularly disruptive. Apparent moral confusion caused the base student army to rise and nearly wreck China by attacking senior Communist Party leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and by conducting mass executions. There were reports that the Red Guards cadres had engaged in cannibalism, eating students. They destroyed approximately 66 percent of China’s famous temples, shrines, and heritage sites. These included nearly 7,000 priceless works of art in the Temple of Confucius alone. The Red Guards would face resistance in major cities. Often the PLA was forced to violently put down their destructive attacks. The organization having fully flown off the rails, Mao instructed leaders of the Red Guards to end their movement.

Meanwhile, Kang had returned to the intelligence service from on high to assume responsibility for the CID cadres that remained left in limbo. Eventually, a new organization, the Central Case Examination Group, composed of CID cadres under Kang was created. That organization was instrumental in the removal of Deng Xiaoping from power. The CID was reestablished in 1971 following the death of Lin Biao and then again became entangled in another power struggle as Hua Kuo-feng and Deng Xiaoping vied for control of the party. By then, Kang had receded into the distance, viewed as too connected to the untidiness of the Cultural Revolution.

Following Mao’s death in 1976, the new leadership under Hua Guofeng initially tried to return to the pre-Cultural Revolution years and strengthen the CID. When Hua Kuo-feng and Wang Dongxing assumed power in 1977, they tried to enlarge the CID and expand the Communist Party of China intelligence work as part of their more general effort to consolidate their leadership positions. However, their hopes and dreams met their fate. Deng Xiaoping, having steadily ascended within the leadership ranks of the Communist Party of China, was uncertain of CID loyalties and his opinion of it was unfavorable. Circumstances indicated that he should order the shut down of all Investigation Offices in Chinese embassies. Although it remained part of the Chinese intelligence services, the CID was officially downgraded. According to Anne-Marie Brady in Making the Foreign Serve China: Managing Foreigners in the People’s Republic (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003), the impact of the CID’s downgrade was softened by the fact that its intelligence efforts  were being paralleled and to some degree occasionally outmatched by the extraordinarily secret International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China, which became deeply involved in inciting and assisting international revolution by moving weapons, financial support, and other critical resources to numerous Communist and non-Communist insurgencies worldwide.

The emblem of the Ministry of State Security (above). In 1983, there was considerable frustration in the Communist Party of China with the high volume of secret information being leaked to the West. This was particularly true with regard to information about debates occurring within the Communist Party and reports of poor economic and social conditions within China. In reaction, counterespionage responsibilities were transferred from the MPS to the new Ministry of State Security (MSS). Known as the Guojia Anquanbu or Guoanbu, the MSS was stood up in July 1983 to rectify the deficiencies of the previous iterations of the intelligence function in the Chinese national security apparatus.

The Inception of the Ministry of State Security

The story of the Ministry of State Security (MSS) began thoroughly in July 1983. That year, there was considerable frustration in the Communist Party of China with the high volume of secret information being leaked to the West. This was particularly true with regard to information about debates occurring within the Communist Party and reports of poor economic and social conditions within China. In reaction, counterespionage responsibilities were transferred from the MPS to the MSS. Known as the Guojia Anquanbu or Guoanbu, the MSS was stood up to rectify the deficiencies of the previous iterations of the intelligence function in the Chinese national security apparatus. When the reorganization of the MPS was completed in 1983, it was temporarily left with only traditional police functions. Nevertheless, the change turned out to be quite positive as both organizations were allowed a new beginning so to speak. MSS represented a reimagination of the intelligence collection process abroad and the counterintelligence struggle against outside powers. It eventually bring new dimensions to China’s foreign intelligence scheme. The creation of MSS freed MPS to revamp existing capabilities and explore and adapt a new as well as more technological set of cards to play in the domestic intelligence game so to speak. It represented a reimagination of the intelligence collection process abroad and the counterintelligence struggle against outside powers.

At its nascent stage, the ranks of the MSS were filled with longtime MPS who transferred over to the office. MSS provincial branches were often staffed predominantly with PLA and government retirees. Despite the declaration of its raison d’être as a foreign intelligence organization, the MSS was initially asked to do what its rank and file knew how to do best, which was to perform as police. For that reason, the most important task that it was given after its inception, focusing on students in both China and abroad after the Tiananmen Square protests, was a natural fit. Tiananmen Square, in addition to being frightfully embarrassing to the Communist Party of China leaders, caused them to remain greatly concerned over a possible follow on move by students. That concern was thoroughly evinced when Chinese authorities announced that some 200 Chinese had been accused of spying for the Soviet Union. One might say that the counterintelligence purpose of the assignment made giving it to the MSS plausible. However, MPS had the domestic counterintelligence mission covered. Redundantly taking on the assignment concerning the student–surely MPS was on it–was a turn in a wrong direction. The MSS would eventually develop into an authentic foreign intelligence service, but it would take time. It would be an evolutionary process.

An ocean of student protesters in Tiananmen Square in May 1989 (above). At its nascent stage, the ranks of the MSS were filled with longtime MPS who transferred over to the office. MSS provincial branches were often staffed with People’s Liberation Army and government retirees. Despite the declaration of its raison d’être as a foreign intelligence organization, the MSS was initially asked to do what its rank and file knew how to do best, which was police work. For that reason, the most important task that it was given after its inception, focusing on students in both China and abroad after the Tiananmen Square protests, was a natural fit. The protests, in addition to being frightfully embarrassing to the Communist Party of China leaders, caused them great concern regarding a possible follow-on move by students.

As aforementioned, a paucity of quality information exists publicly from the Chinese government about the present-day MSS in primary or secondary sources. No official Chinese government website exists for the intelligence organization. There have been no press releases distributed or press conferences held by the organization’s public relations department. Access to information from the organization is essentially nonexistent. No significant writings have been published  by security scholars in China on the MSS. Precious few defections from MSS have occurred, so little has been provided from an insider’s view. What is best known generally about MSS in the US has been superbly relayed in I.G. Smith’s and Nigel West’s celebrated Historical Dictionary of Chinese Intelligence (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).

The MSS headquarters is located in Beijing in a large compound in Xiyuan, on Eastern Chiang’an Avenue, close to Tiananmen Square. Within the security perimeter is snowing apartment block, Qian Men, where many of the MSS staff and their families live. The MSS is a civilian intelligence service and operates independently from the People’s Liberation Army General Staff Second and Third Departments, which also conduct military intelligence and counterintelligence operations. Although it has a central headquarters, the MSS actually was not built up as a centralized organization. It is composed of national, provincial, and local branches much as the MPS from which it sprang. Even the initial CDSA and later CID units of the MPS operated domestically under a decentralized and autonomous structure throughout China that was supported by the Communist Party of China. Their structure somewhat resembles that of the erstwhile regional and Soviet republic KGB bureaus. The provincial, and local branches receive directives from headquarters in Beijing and are financed by National Security Special Funds. Yet, only to the extent that provincial and local branches receive “administrative expenses,” could they be considered accountable to headquarters. They are largely autonomous in reality, reportedly acting as essential adjuncts to the local administration. The formal chief of the MSS holds the title Minister of State Security. As of this writing, the minister is Chen Wenqing. However, from the national level to the local levels, the MSS and its subordinate departments and bureaus report to a system of leading small groups, coordinating offices, and commissions to guide security work while lessening the risk of politicization on behalf of Communist Party of China leaders. Initially, the most important of these was the Political-Legal Commission (Zhongyang Guoja Anquan Weiyuanhui). The Political-Legal Commission was chaired by a Politburo member at the Central level with the title Secretary, who serves essentially as China’s security czar. There are Deputy Party Secretaries at the lower levels. The lower-level commissions oversee all state security, public security, prisons, and procuratorate (judicial) elements for their levels. Currently, there is a Secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (Zhengfawei) who oversees China’s security apparatus and law enforcement institutions, also with power reaching into the courts, prosecution agencies, police forces, paramilitary forces, and intelligence organs  Xi announced the creation of the Central State Security Commission (CSSC) in the Third Plenary Session of the Eighteenth Party Congress in November 2013. The CSSC held its first meeting on April 15, 2014. The purpose of this new commission was twofold. First, it was intended to balance internal political power created by the expansion of the security services and their capabilities in the 2000s. Second, the commission orient’s the MSS and other security forces toward planning and preempting threats to the party-state. At lower levels, provinces, counties, and municipalities have state security leading small groups (Guoja Anquan Lingdao Xiaozu). The political-legal Commissions and State Security leading small groups overlap in personnel but not perfectly. They combine with defense mobilizations committees and 610 offices to create a kind of system of systems that oversees local security and intelligence work. Headquarters is surely kept apprised of what the provincial and local branches are doing. Each level reports to the next MSS level up and the Political-Legal Committee at that level. This florid arrangement of horizontal and vertical relationships often creates bureaucratic competition that encourages pushing decisions upward while hiding information from elements of equal protocol rank.

Intellect, will, and hard earned experience drove MSS leaders forward as they molded the MSS into a truly effective intelligence organization. What compelled the domestic focus of its initial work is further apparent in that process. The first two ministers, Ling Yun and Jia Chunwang, faced the challenge of turning a small Ministry with only a handful of outlying provincial departments into a nationwide security apparatus. The expansion occurred in four waves. In the first wave during MSS’ inaugural year, the municipal bureaus or provincial departments of state security for Beijing, Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Heilongjiang, Jiangsu, Liaoning, and Shanghai were created. A second wave appeared shortly thereafter between 1985 and 1988, including Chongqing, Gansu, Hainan, Henan, Shaanxi, Tianjin, and Zhejiang. The third wave from 1990 to 1995 completed the expansion of the Ministry across at the provincial levels, bringing in Anguilla, Hunan, Qinghai, and Sichuan provinces. The fourth wave the provincial-level departments expanded vertically, taking over local public security bureaus or established subordinate municipal or County bureaus. The MSS policy of expanding representative offices in most major towns and cities was reversed in 1997. Nevertheless, when MSS minister Jia left in 1998 for the MPS, the MSS was a nationwide organization at every level. Presently, the MSS’ thirty-one major provincial and municipal sub-elements. Interestingly, as MSS moved through each growth spurt, it did not ignite efforts to rename the organization, to divide it into pieces and parcel out some of its departments among other Chinese intelligence services, or to disband it altogether in the way CDSA and MPS suffered in the two previous decades. There seemed to be an understanding system wide that the need existed for a solid civilian foreign intelligence as well as counterintelligence capability. Continue reading